Three Compelling Ways to Rethink Leadership Practices

Business Woman ThinkAre your leadership practices based on outdated assumptions about the true nature of human motivation? Think about how you might approach leadership differently if you took into account some of the latest findings:

Our basic human nature is to thrive. No one wants to be bored and disengaged. People want to contribute. People appreciate meaningful challenges.

We all have three psychological needs—autonomy, relatedness, and competence—that contribute to our well-being.

Leaders can’t motivate anyone. What they can do is shape a workplace where it is more likely that people will experience optimal motivation through proven best practices.

If you are serious about improving people’s productivity, sustainable performance, creativity, resilience, risk-taking, mental health, emotional well-being, and positive physical energy, I urge you to consider elevating your current leadership practices.  Here are three ways to get started.

  1. Encourage Autonomy: Set SMARTer goals where the M stands for motivating and the reasons for achieving the goal are tied to developed values, a noble purpose, or inherent joy. Illuminate freedom within boundaries to shift focus from what can’t be done to what can be done. Present timelines as useful information rather than as a form of pressure.
  2. Deepen Relatedness: Discuss individual values in light of the organization’s values so that workplace goals can be linked to reasons individuals find meaningful. Reframe metrics with individuals so that they can personally relate to outcomes with purpose and meaning. Provide pure feedback that leaves out your personal opinion, statements of your pride or pleasure, and rah-rah comments. Allow individuals to reflect on and determine how they feel about their own efforts, rather than becoming dependent on your approval—an unhealthy reason for their actions.
  3. Build Competence: Facilitate Motivational Outlook Conversations to help ensure individuals are optimally motivated to follow through on solutions and action plans—otherwise, your coaching results are as castles built on sand. Concentrate on learning orientation by asking each day/week/month: What did you learn that will help you tomorrow? and What do you still need to learn to achieve your goals? Celebrate learning moments by going beyond fixing mistakes to taking advantage of them.

One More Thing: Leader, Heal Thyself

The new science of motivation builds a compelling case for updating traditional leadership practices. But before you can encourage autonomy, deepen relatedness, or build competence with those you lead, you need to reflect on your own motivation to lead.

Consider this story:

The hard-driving sales manager hoping to inspire his new sales rep took the young man to the top of a hill overlooking a posh part of the city. “Look at that place,” said the manager, pointing to a magnificent property. “I bet the house is 6000 square feet, plus the horse stable and tennis court.” He pointed to another home, “Can you imagine the party you could throw around that pool?” Then, the manager put his arm around the wide-eyed young rep’s shoulders and told him, “Son, if you keep working as hard as you’re working, some day all this could be mine!”

If your people sense—or even wrongly interpret—that your motivation to lead is self-serving, it undermines their psychological need for relatedness. Their positive energy is diminished as you chip away at their autonomy by pushing them to make their numbers or by pressuring them to be number one. They feel manipulated by your suggestions when your intention was to build their competence. Worse, feelings of alienation and pressure can fuel negative energy, leading some to sabotage the system by falsifying reports, making bad deals, or engaging in unethical behavior. They justify their own self-serving actions by comparing them to what they perceive as your self-serving motives.

To take advantage of the compelling new leadership practices, ignite your own motivation to lead through meaningful values and a noble purpose. When it comes to being an inspiring and effective leader, the reasons for your motivation matter.

About the Author

Susan FowlerSusan Fowler is a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies, co-creator of the company’s Optimal Motivation and Situational Self Leadership training programs, and the author of the bestselling book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.

Editor’s Note: Are you attending this year’s ATD International Conference & Exposition in Denver?  Don’t miss Susan Fowler’s presentation on Sunday, May 22, at 1:30 pm.  You can learn more about all the Blanchard activities at this year’s event by visiting

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